Romans 8 concludes the first half of the letter with a powerful message that affirms the good news (gospel) of God’s sovereign mercy. Paul counters two competing “gospels” — the gospel of the Roman Empire (which parallels the other empires of the past 2,000 years) and the gospel of exclusionary religiosity (which also has parallels in history, especially within Christianity).
The gospel Paul proclaims is the good news of Jesus’ revelation of the healing justice of God. The purpose of the God that Paul describes is that the Spirit of God would empower us to become like Jesus and love our neighbors, even our enemies (in contrast to the spirit both of empire and religiosity).
Paul affirms God’s “predestination,” but not in that God determines ahead of time who will believe or not. Rather, it’s that our destiny as human beings is “to be conformed to the image” of Jesus. As such, we will not be part of a small spiritual elite but a “large family” (8:29). The allusion to “family” evokes the beginning promise to Abraham: his descendants will bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).
Contrary to the message of empire, where the “chosen ones” inflict suffering on enemies, the message of Paul’s gospel is that the “chosen ones,” in following the path of Jesus — radical love toward the vulnerable, witness against domination — will themselves suffer (see 8:18).
So, the promise that “all things work together for good” (8:28) is not a message that we will always “win.” Rather, it’s that no amount of hostility at the hands of the powers-that-be can separate us from God’s love (8:35, 39). Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Beginning at Rom. 9:1, Paul offers an extended reflection on one of his biggest struggles: How is it that his understanding of God’s call before he met Jesus could have been so wrong, even as it appropriately drew on the message of the Bible (our Old Testament) and the traditions of Israel for its guidance?
Paul addresses the most profound and attractive (for him) tradition he knows, which argues for some people being special. He argues, in effect, that he had misunderstood that tradition. From the start, God actually made it clear that it is the sovereignty of God’s mercy that matters, not human assumptions about who should be chosen.
Esau was born first, but it was Jacob who carried on the promise. The point is not that God condemned Esau or that God is simply inscrutable. Rather, God’s mercy and compassion are freely given and not dependent upon religiosity or any other type of “human will or exertion” (9:16).
We misunderstand Paul if we read this passage as in any sense being about who loses. There is no condemnation here — unless it’s a kind of self-condemnation caused by misunderstanding God as someone other than a God of mercy for all. “It depends . . . on God who shows mercy” (9:16).
Paul makes a remarkable link here. Just as Pharaoh’s hardened heart actually led to a greater outpouring of God’s mercy, so too did the hardheartedness of Jews such as Paul himself (before he met Jesus) lead to a greater outpouring of God’s mercy with the incoming of Gentiles into the household of God. Thus is God’s “name proclaimed in all the earth” (9:17).
The “hardening” of the hearts of those who resist God’s mercy (Pharaoh and Jews like Paul) will result in God having mercy on all (11:32)!
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.